• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Third Time’s the Charm

When students get stuck.


March 29, 2016

Practice doesn’t make perfect.

In fact, students taking a class for the second time pass it at lower rates than students taking it the first time. The third time at lower rates than the second. With each new attempt, the percentage who pass gets lower. (To be fair, the sample size gets pretty small once you hit really high numbers of attempts, so it’s hard to say if the percentage keeps going all the way to zero. But it never reverses direction.) You’d think it would get easier, but the data suggest otherwise.

I mention this because we had a discussion on campus this week about the kinds of interventions, if any, that might make a positive difference for students who’ve already failed a class two or three times. But I haven’t seen any good studies on that.

Anecdotally, I’ve heard of or seen cases in which a well-aimed intervention made a difference. For example, I’ve heard of students who struggled because of previously undiagnosed learning disabilities; in those cases, steering them to support services made a life-changing difference.  (Closely related is the student who has the diagnosis, but tries to “rough it” and go without supports to see what happens.) I’ve personally worked with students who admitted, when asked, that they really didn’t like their major, but they thought it was what they were “supposed to” do. When they got permission from an authority figure to switch to something they liked, their performance jumped.  Sometimes there’s an underlying medical issue. Sometimes it’s just the wrong time, based on things happening (or that happened) in their personal lives.

And yes, sometimes it’s just the wrong match of abilities. I tend to leave that as a when-all-else-fails explanation, though.  Jumping to it too quickly isn’t fair to students.

Apparently, community colleges have been immune to the grade inflation that has hit other sectors. So we don’t have the “just pass ‘em anyway” option that you might find elsewhere. I think that’s to our credit, but it sort of forces the issue. (My back-of-the-envelope theory on the lack of grade inflation has to do with transfer. Far more cc students go on to a particular four-year school than four-year grads go to a particular law, grad, or med school. If we were giving away A’s like candy, it would show up faster for us, so we don’t.)

Some colleges mandate “student success” or “study skills” courses for students who place into multiple developmental courses. The idea is that someone who went through thirteen years of education without developing good writing or math skills probably isn’t very good at studying.  Whatever the merits of that approach, though, I’m not sure it would make as much sense for the student who has failed, say, Anatomy and Physiology several times in a row. I’d guess the latter case often comes from a different cause. To be fair, though, that’s just a guess -- if anyone has seen good data on that, I’d love to hear about it.

With the lifetime limit on Pell grants down to 12 semesters, the question is more urgent than it used to be. A student who spends five or six semesters spinning her wheels in one class will be hard-pressed to finish a degree before running out of aid.  And given what we know about the effects of delay on completion -- the longer it takes, the less likely to finish -- letting students spend years on a single class likely isn’t doing anyone any favors.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a strategy that works particularly well for students who get stuck on a particular class?  



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